February 13, 2021
Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.
Who exactly is Nodeep Kaur and why has her arrest during the ongoing farmer protests in Delhi sparked an international outcry? What does her arrest signify for you, me and the state of civil rights in India?
Until December 2020, Nodeep Kaur was just another 24-year-old. A Dalit labourer from Punjab, she worked at a firm in the Kundli Industrial Area, or KIA, very close to the Singhu border which is the epicentre of the protests by farmers against three new laws that threaten to push them into the servitude of large corporations.
Nodeep was reportedly fired without being paid when she decided to join the protests. A video of her in which people are heard talking about how labourers are also part of the agitation against the farm laws went viral.
Taking inspiration from the farmer protests, Nodeep became part of the Mazdoor Adhikar Sangathan, or MAS, agitation against non-payment of salaries and harassment by employers at KIA. The campaign joined the farmer agitation and even set up its own camp at Singhu along with the hundreds of others there.
On January 12, 2021, Nodeep was detained during a gherao at KIA that the police claim turned violent. The police filed two first information reports against her, invoking charges under the non-bailable sections 307, 384 and 379 of the Indian Penal Code — attempt to murder, extortion and theft, respectively. Other charges included rioting with deadly weapons, criminal intimidation, causing hurt to a public servant, unlawful assembly and trespassing.
The manner of her arrest is indicative of the way the police have been functioning of late. Nodeep’s family says she was arrested late at night in violation of norms and that they were not informed where she had been taken by the police. It was revealed only after a public outcry that she was in Karnal Jail.
Here’s where it gets even more horrifying. Nodeep’s sister Rajvir, a research scholar at Delhi University, claims she was sexually assaulted and tortured in custody. On January 13, when she visited Nodeep in jail, she noticed wounds on Nodeep’s genitals. Her lawyer added that a medical examination also confirmed injuries across her body and genitals.
The Sonepat police, meanwhile, denied all the allegations. They said that Nodeep along with two women and more than 50 men entered an office at KIA and demanded money. When the police arrived on the scene, they claim that an inspector and two constables were assaulted and injured, and the demonstrators tried to snatch a gun from them.
The police claimed Nodeep was kept in the ladies’ waiting room at the station house and was accompanied by two women officers throughout. They added that Nodeep refused a medical examination for sexual assault because no such thing ever happened.
Since then, Nodeep’s bail pleas have been rejected multiple times.
Rajvir said Nodeep was being framed. “My sister is a labour and Dalit rights activist. She along with other activists had gone to get the wages of some labourers released, but the owner of the factory opened fire on them. The allegations are false. We also tried to lodge a complaint but that was not entertained,” she said.
Nodeep’s arrest struck a chord internationally because the world’s eyes are on the farmer protests and the Indian government’s brutal response to them. Nodeep has become the face of a labour rights campaign that has run parallel to the farmer protests.
Her case first received international traction when US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris tweeted about it with the hashtag #ReleaseNodeepKaur.
Later, Canadian MP Gurratan Singh tweeted: “Nodeep Kaur, an advocate for Dalit and Worker rights from Punjab, was picked up by the police 21 days ago for supporting farmers. She’s been tortured and sexually assaulted in custody. She was denied a medical exam and bail. Calling on leaders to raise their voice for her. #FreeNodeepKaur.”
The demand was echoed by Ravinder Singh of the Khalsa Aid, Instagram poet Rupi Kaur and environmental activist Licypriya Kangujam.
Indian organisations, meanwhile, had already raised the pitch. The Khet Mazdoor Union and Association for Democratic Rights demanded her release, and were supported by the Kendri Singh Sabha. Shingara Singh Mann, of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, said: “We condemn the arrest of Nodeep Kaur, who is a fierce activist of the labour class and Dalits and fights for the protection of their rights. We demand her immediate release and want strict punitive action against those who framed her.”
Jora Singh Nasrali, of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union, added: “We condemn any sort of atrocities on the labour class or for that matter anyone. We strongly condemn the arrest of Nodeep and demand her release.”
Professor AK Maleri, of the Association For Democratic Rights, said: “Her arrest and assault are nothing but a clear attempt at suppressing the voice of dissent.”
Sikh individuals and organisations, meanwhile, extended financial and legal support to Nodeep.
Nodeep’s case is reminiscent of so many that we’ve seen over the past six years – dubious arrests, procedures thrown to the wind, frequent denial of bail, trumped up charges like sedition in many cases, assault in custody, the targeting of minorities and weaker sections like Dalits… I could go on and on.
The space for dissent, freedom of speech – and, in fact, various freedoms – is shrinking very rapidly in India. Laws are being thrust upon unwilling stakeholders who are then deemed anti-national by the government and its troll army. The full might of the state – including armed men in uniform – is then trained on them.
Nodeep Kaur is but one of the victims – albeit one that has the world’s attention. The world is not just speaking up, it’s listening to the millions of Indians protesting on the streets.
Free Nodeep Kaur.
Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch you again soon.